Securing Scotland’s European future
It will be of no surprise to anyone reading this that I disagree with the First Minister on many issues, not least that of Scottish independence. But we do agree on one important point. We both want Scotland to have the closest possible relationship with our European partners following a Brexit neither of us wanted.
This is why I agreed to join the First Minister’s Standing Council on Europe, which inspired the Scottish government’s recent paper, Scotland’s Place in Europe.
This is the first detailed plan on Brexit from any government in the UK, and Mrs Sturgeon should be commended for her attempt to advance the national debate. The paper suggests three options: one, the UK stays in the single market; two, independence; and three, which is the most innovative, whereby Scotland seeks a ‘differentiated’ solution, remaining a member of the single market and part of the UK even as it leaves the EU.
After Theresa May’s speech at Lancaster House, those three choices have now become two: we know now that the UK will leave the single market.
It is my view that though Brexit increases the emotional support for independence – as it reveals another issue where mainstream Scottish opinion is different to that of the English, it simultaneously damages the economic argument. Although Scotland relies on the European single market for its trade, it relies an awful lot more on the long-established single market with the rest of the UK.
In the First Minister’s third option is an implicit recognition of this fact. Economically, it makes sense not to cut Scotland off from either market, so why not try to stay in both?
The plan, for part of a non-member state to retain access to the single market and to remain part of a customs union with that non-member state, is certainly audacious. It is also unprecedented, although in the paper the authors go to great lengths to point out that individual aspects of the arrangement do have precedents, like Greenland and the Faroe Islands – territories of a member state (Denmark) with bespoke deals that let them be outside the EU.
The paper also points to the UK government’s insistence that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as proof of ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’.
Although it answers many questions, the paper also poses many more, such as how will they manage the administrative burden of two separate tariff rates within the same territory? What happens when the UK starts making its own trade deals?
So far, so technical. But letting Scotland access the single market means us accepting the EU’s four freedoms, which of course means devolution of immigration and business regulation, hitherto a no-no in even the most generous devolution deal.
All in all this is a good first attempt to find the right solution for Scotland. We now have a head start in planning terms. It’s about time the rest of the UK caught up.